Exceptional Brazil playmaker Giuliano’s second-half header saw Al Nassr come from behind to defeat Xavi’s Al Sadd 2-1 and gain the early advantage in the 2019 AFC Champions League’s quarter-finals.
In the enforced absence of record-breaking striker Abderrazak Hamdallah for a contest between Saudi Arabian and Qatari top-flight holders, the hosts at a partisan King Fahd International Stadium struggled to convert early chances. Willowy stand-in Saleh Al Abbas rattled the crossbar from a one-on-one, before midfielder Abdulrahman Al Dawsari’s greed was instantly punished by Ali Assadalla’s first-time finish into the roof of the net from a rapier counter-attack at the other end.
The same player, however, would claim redemption just before half-time. South Korea midfielder Jung Woo-young failed to clear a corner and the 21-year-old slotted in an opening career goal.
Nassr steadily built momentum after the break. Persistence gained reward on 72 minutes when Giuliano nodded in substitute Firas Al-Buraikan header across goal.
This effort ensured Nassr are slight favourites for September 16’s enticing decider at Doha’s Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium.
Here are the talking points:
NASSR GO FULL THROTTLE
In boxing, the maxim goes that “styles make fights”.
This belief in entertainment being derived from contrasting – and simultaneously enriching – philosophies applied to Monday night’s action in Riyadh.
Nassr tactician Rui Vitoria reacted deftly to the physical Hamdallah’s unavailability because of a foot issue. Gone was the usual succession of crosses from Morocco winger Nordin Amrabat, plus full-backs Sultan Al Ghanam – highly fortunate to escape dismissal for a wild second-half lunge at Qatar golden boy Akram Afif – and Awadh Khamis.
The hosts, instead, attempted to burst through the centre ground, with box-to-box midfielder Al Dawsari and the ceaseless Giuliano pressing on with abandon. A desire to charge forwards inspired 19 attempts on goal, to the visitors’ seven.
Sadd, in contrast, boasted solid foundations provided by a three-man defence, while accruing 56-per-cent of possession thanks to ex-Atletico Madrid centre midfielder Gabi and partner Jung’s refinement.
The margins between sides stacked with talent, and expertly led, remain tantalisingly close.
ASSESSING XAVI’S IMPACT
Xavi’s nascent coaching career presented an intriguing sub-plot.
The Barcelona great hung up his boots at Sadd in the summer after an exemplary 22-year playing career and replaced the veteran Jesualdo Ferreira. A first defeat from five matches in charge was registered on Monday.
This should not detract, however, from his influence at the Qatar Stars League champions.
He again stuck with the 3-5-2 formation favoured at international level by his plethora of Qatar internationals, rather than a dogmatic insistence on the 4-3-3 Cruyffismo endemic at Camp Nou.
The approach took the sting out of Nassr early doors, while providing ample opportunity to utilise exciting forward Afif’s pace on the counter.
An away goal may still prove invaluable for the second leg. Sadd – the only non-Saudi members remaining in west Asia – are definitely not out of this.
FT: Al Nassr FC 🇸🇦 2 - 1 Al Sadd SC 🇶🇦— AFC Champions League (@TheAFCCL) August 26, 2019
From a goal down to winning the match. Can Al Nassr carry this momentum into Doha a few weeks from tonight?
Awaiting a very interesting 2nd leg on 16/09/19. #ACL2019 #NSRvsSDD pic.twitter.com/8DjHKamE2u
HOPE VIA HAMDALLAH
Confidence is not misplaced in the Nassr camp about progressing to a first ACL semi.
A medical problem incurred by Hamdallah in Thursday’s SPL opener against promoted Damac – a 2-0 triumph in which he produced a trademark header – meant this tie came far too soon.
The 28-year-old, however, has been doing light training and is highly unlikely to feature for Morocco in the international break because of the conflict that preceded the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.
He will be refreshed and raring to go in just more than a fortnight.
Hamdallah would, surely, have converted Al Abbas’ glaring first-half chance. He also ominously scored 39 goals in 43 Qatar Stars League run-outs, for El Jaish and Al Rayyan, from 2015-18.
With play likely stretched in Doha as Sadd chase aggregate dominance, this will leave gaps to plunder from.
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